[Sidebar] July 3 - 10, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Briskly efficient but highly attentive

by Bill Rodriguez

555 Atwood Ave., Cranston, 944-2500
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Fri and Sat, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun, 12-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

God, no. Not another good Italian restaurant. I've said it before and it looks like I'll have to get used to saying it again -- no matter how many Italian restaurants crowd Rhode Island like so many cannelloni on a plate, there always seems to be room for one more. One of the latest is Nicole's in Cranston, and it's another winner.

Its rose and beige stucco exterior reeks of Northern Italy and simple elegance. Inside, the color motif continues, and so do the clean lines and restful decor. At one end is a full bar; at the other, an open kitchen separated from diners by a shoulder-high counter that is adorned with polished copper pitchers and bundles of garlic bulbs. Prominent is an open-hearth oven, logs blazing away at the back as invitingly as in a fireplace.

Nicole's bills itself as a bistro and banquet restaurant, the former signaling informality, the latter, efficient mass service. I don't know how the large midweek party in the function room fared, but we felt a nice balance between feeling relaxed and fussed over. Briskly efficient but attentive. Waitstaff in white jackets buttoned to the throat.

The flowers on each table are silk, but the tablecloths are, in fact, cloth -- and not covered with butcher paper as they are at many bistros. We were served not a bread basket but a small, freshly baked Italian loaf and a dish of especially full-flavored olive oil accented with red pepper flakes.

There are some interesting choices among the appetizers. One novel offering is a loaf of twisted garlic bread to be dipped in a pool of Gorgonzola cream sauce. Calamari ($7.50) is listed as "Grilled Marinated Squid" to avoid sounding prosaic, and it is served on a bed of warm mesclun salad.

But facing those hearth flames, we couldn't not try a wood-oven pizza. The one with eggplant ($8.95) proved to be a fine choice. While the big chunks of eggplant had the skin on, making them colorful but tough, the vegetables were young enough to be perfectly tender. With this tantalizing start, the theme of the evening became smokey goodness. Sweet red onions, slices of tomato, Mozzarella, and a crust so tasty, it was delicious even at the burnt edges.

The wood smoke did its most impressive work enhancing my split half-roasted chicken ($8.95). Semi-cooked before being marinated and baked, the white meat was somewhat dry but quite delicious.

Also, while grilled vegetables at many restaurants are mere afterthoughts, as though not steaming them is doing enough, the carrot, yellow squash, and zuke strips on my plate were glazed with a balsamic vinaigrette that kept me abandoning my meat for another taste. The mashed potatoes were red bliss and quite good.

As you can see from my entrées, you can eat well here for little. The highest priced items, sirloin umbriago and marinated duck, will run you $16.95; the restaurant's signature Caesar salad, with marinated veal sausage and wild mushrooms, $10.95. Overall, the menu offers a good mix of pastas as well as grill selections, including mahi-mahi ($13.95) and Norwegian salmon ($14.95). Across the table, my regular dining partner was enjoying their creamy version of pasta primavera ($11.95).

The penne Johnnie chose was not one of their homemade pastas, but it was still top quality. The Fontina and Mascarpone sauce was light, and the medley was choice: from Calamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes to two kinds of wild mushrooms, pine nuts and a waiter-grated finish of Parmesan.

Desserts are made by Pastry Arts in Pawtucket, and the lemon meringue pie ($2.95) we ordered was an airy version, with a delicate browned top on a light chiffon filling. All in all, it was a fit finish for an enjoyable meal.

Another good Italian restaurant? I guess I can live with that.

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